If you have had your little stories with downtown Cairo, you must have a few memories in the vicinity of Adly Street.
It could have been a long time ago on a summer evening when you entered Groppi with your parents for gateau in the late 1960s, or when you caught a matinee at the Metro Movie theatre before stopping for ice cream at Talaat Harb's Excelsior in the early 1970s.
You could also shop around the area with a friend to look at wedding rings in some of the neighbourhood's old jewelry stores, or when you were excited in the late 1980s to notice the opening of La Chesa, where a cappuccino used to be served for under LE7, exactly next to one of the capital’s old synagogues.
Just opposite this synagogue now stands a new restaurant that just might whisk you back to the good old days of downtown Cairo: Eish we Malh (literally: Bread and Salt).
You are in for the perfect nostalgia session if, on your way there, you happen to have passed by Lehnert and Landrock on Sherif Pasha Street for a glimpse through its glorious collections of black-and-white photos – not just of downtown Cairo, but of the whole Egypt in the early 20th century.
Eish we Malh may not imitate the style of old restaurants, but its interiors, menu and ambiance all intentionally play on nostalgia.
As my elder lunch companion, who is well-versed on downtown Cairo of the 1930s onwards, remarks, “It does capture the style.”
The only thing that seems out place at Eish we Malh is the shisha service.
But if it is a pleasant afternoon and the large windows are wide open, then you can try and overlook the shisha effect and focus on the very inviting menu, either in Arabic or English, depending on your lunch companions.
The Arabic and English are used to explain to the novice of Italian cuisine that "Risotto ai funghi” is basically rice with mushroom, and that "Pollo arrosto" is a golden roasted half chicken, served with fresh tomatoes and basil.
“The food is good – it's not like the chain restaurants where everything tastes the same, more or less,” notes my lunch companion, after two sips of the mushroom soup and a nibble of the nicely-toasted bread with cheese and tomatoes on top.
“This is one of the things that downtown Cairo is really missing, if you ask me: a distinct taste," says the elder Cairo resident. "Everything used to have a distinct taste. There were so many tea rooms that served ice cream, but it was never quite the same… Each cafe had its own style. So did the stores, the jewelry stores and even the flower shops!”
The portions are adequate, and, we noted, allow visitors to try a starter and a main dish, and then still have space for a desert – even if shared.
“You have to try today's tiramisu," announces restaurant manager Nadia, with a flash of her genuine, big smile. "It's just about perfect. I tasted it myself.”
The tiramisu does live up to Nadia's promise, and after being peacefully shared, gracefully prompts one double espresso and a green tea – loose leaves, not the tea-bag variety – and a long chat on how Egypt used to be, and how it has become.
With someone in their late forties and another in their late seventies, there is a lot of juxtaposition to do. Of course, my lunch companion has many anecdotes to share about the premieres of black-and-white films – now cinematic classics -- from Egypt and Hollywood at the Hollat Cinema Metro and Cinema Rivoli.
“But I think too much nostalgia is not good for you," adds my companion. "This yearning for years past really is too much. It keeps you from appreciating the fact that you now have endless ways to communicate with a relative living on the other side of the world at any time you like. Would you prefer nicer tearooms to this incredible revolution in communications?”
He looked at an adjacent table occupied by a young group of men and women all staring at their smart phone screens while chatting.
“Although on second thought, I am not so sure that this IT hype is all that positive – it connects you to those who are far away, but might also disconnect you from those closest to you,” he said.
And with that, in the old-fashioned way, the gentleman insists that he pay the lunch bill – a little over LE 300 – even if I have invited him.
After lunch, a little stroll is in order.
“Let's go back to Lehnert and Landrock," my companion suggests. "Maybe I can find the picture of Alexandria that shows my grandparents’ place where we used to stay in Sidi Bishr. I know I saw it there once. Since you are so in love with the past…”